After having any lingering postseason hopes officially snuffed out in Tuesday night’s 4-3 overtime loss against the Chicago Blackhawks, the Vegas Golden Knights are wrapping their season – and the franchise’s streak of consecutive playoff berths – up with a whimper. For a high-priced team with legitimate Stanley Cup aspirations, there’s no way to spin that other than to acknowledge the colossal disappointment that the 2021-22 season has been.
It goes without saying that we will take a deep dive into the off-season and where the club goes from here. But first, let’s go against the grain here a bit. At a time when sentiments surround Vegas are almost exclusively negative in nature, it’s worth noting that there were some encouraging signs stemming from the last few weeks, even if they didn’t result in the club’s ultimate goal being achieved. Here are three key takeaways from the club’s late-season playoff push:
You can’t accuse Shea Theodore of not playing like the season was on the line over the past few weeks. The 26-year-old blueliner turned on the jets over the final month or so of the year, recording six goals and eight assists over the past 14 games. Included in that stretch is two April overtime winners, a game-winner to keep some distance in front of the Vancouver Canucks and a highlight reel finisher over the Washington Capitals.
Before the OT winner against Washington, Theodore set a new career-high in points with an assist on Evgenii Dadonov’s second-period goal, his 47th point on the campaign. I recently ranked Theodore as boasting the Golden Knights’ best contract value and the club should continue benefiting from that deal for the three remaining years of its lifespan, which also coincide with much of Theodore’s prime.
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Things are about as clear as mud when it comes to Robin Lehner’s future with the Golden Knights given the bizarre end to his season. Lehner was pulled just 20 minutes into the Washington overtime victory after allowing a goal on 13 shots. Head coach Pete DeBoer denied that Lehner was done for the season and dressed him for the team’s next game, only to announce that Lehner would undergo season-ending shoulder surgery. It certainly appears that the club pressured him to return in spite of an ongoing injury. (from ‘Explaining a bizarre week in Vegas that ended with Robin Lehner’s season-ending surgery,’ Jesse Granger, The Athletic, 4/26/22).
Suffice to say, none of this is optimal. If it leads to a separation this summer, it would hardly be the first contentious split experienced by the team. But alas, a silver lining! Logan Thompson more than held his own while thrust into a difficult situation amidst injuries to Lehner and Laurent Brossoit, recording a 2.57 goals-against average and .920 save percentage in 17 starts after the All-Star break. Assuming Thompson factors into Vegas’ goaltending plans next season, he and his $766,000 cap hit provided desperately-needed relief.
At the start of the season, the pending free agency of Reilly Smith looked like a major looming challenge for the club. Now, it feels like the least of their worries. Losing Smith would sting, both for his considerable production and for having to bid farewell to the ‘Misfits line‘. However, the 31-year-old hasn’t suited up since March 8 and many depth forwards have managed to step up in his absence.
In the past few weeks alone, Chandler Stephenson, William Carrier, Evgenii Dadonov and Nicolas Roy have all enjoyed standout moments for the Golden Knights, even as Jonathan Marchessault and William Karlsson have struggled. Now, there’s a difference between standout moments and consistent, bona fide top-six production. But the balanced scoring that Vegas has gotten – albeit in a losing effort on many nights – offers a reminder that there’s depth here when healthy, Smith or no Smith.
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When a team falls short of expectations – and make no mistake, this Golden Knights team fell well short of expectations – the temptation is to focus on the negative. There’s plenty of that to be dissected, but when President George McPhee, GM Kelly McCrimmon and the Vegas brass gather to assess the season and evaluate their roster, they’ll be looking at the positive and negative developments. Believe it or not, there were some positives.
I may be a Leafs fan at heart (I’ve witnessed their highs and lows first-hand as a Scotiabank Arena employee), but I’m also a veteran freelance sportswriter who loves a good story. And there’s been no better story in hockey over the past few years than the Vegas Golden Knights. I’m excited to be covering the NHL again on the Golden Knights’ beat.